Work­ing hours more than just a la­bor and salary is­sue

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT - H O L O K- S A N G

The stan­dard work­ing hours is­sue, like the Manda­tory Prov­i­dent Fund’s sev­er­ance/long-ser­vice pay­ment off­set, hurts Hong Kong be­cause if em­ploy­ers and em­ploy­ees can­not come to an agree­ment, the an­i­mos­ity and dis­trust be­tween them will only es­ca­late. The new chief ex­ec­u­tive has promised to tackle these thorny is­sues but how? I shall de­fer the MPF off­set prob­lem un­til next week and would like to share some thoughts on the di­rec­tion for go­ing for­ward with work­ing hours.

There are two key le­git­i­mate con­cerns. The first is that ex­ces­sively long work­ing hours harm health and safety — in­clud­ing some­times public safety — and that for a de­vel­oped econ­omy like ours pro­tec­tion of health and the pro­mo­tion of safety de­serve greater at­ten­tion and should be con­sid­ered mat­ters of top pri­or­ity. The sec­ond is work-life bal­ance. In par­tic­u­lar, long hours un­der­mine fam­ily life as par­ents with long work­ing hours are too tired and have too lit­tle time to spend with their chil­dren. Chil­dren un­able to grow up hap­pily will only mean prob­lems down the road.

Em­ploy­ees, un­for­tu­nately, seem to fo­cus more on whether they are ad­e­quately com­pen­sated for ex­tra hours of work. With stan­dard work­ing hours de­fined, they can ex­pect their em­ploy­ers to pay more on ex­tra work­ing hours.

In 2013, the gov­ern­ment set up the Stan­dard Work­ing Hours Com­mit­tee to study the sub­ject. Af­ter sev­eral years of dis­cus­sion, re­gret­tably, em­ployee rep­re­sen­ta­tives walked out con­vinced that em­ploy­ers would sim­ply deny their de­mands. In the end the com­mit­tee, in the ab­sence of em­ployee rep­re­sen­ta­tives, pro­duced a pol­icy pack­age fi­nally adopted by the gov­ern­ment. As ex­pected, there would be no leg­is­la­tion on stan­dard work­ing hours and em­ploy­ers would only be asked to have an ex­plicit con­trac­tual agree­ment with em­ploy­ees as to nor­mal work­ing hours and how work­ers were to be com­pen­sated if they worked in ex­cess of the nor­mal hours. This new re­quire­ment ap­plies only to em­ploy­ees who earn no more than HK$11,000 a month. The gov­ern­ment would also of­fer “guide­lines” for work­ing hours and over­time pay in se­lected in­dus­tries “for ref­er­ence”. The gov­ern­ment promised to re­view the ef­fec­tive­ness of the pol­icy two years later.

I can un­der­stand the frus­tra­tion of work­ers. The “con­trac­tual hours” pro­posal is not what work­ers wanted. More­over, re­strict­ing the pol­icy to work­ers earn­ing no more than HK$11,000 a month seems in­com­pre­hen­si­ble, since all con­tracts should be trans­par­ent.

In an ear­lier col­umn (Nov 20, 2012) I had asked that statu­tory max­i­mum work­ing hours ap­ply across the board. The statu­tory max­i­mum work­ing hours would spell out the max­i­mum hours em­ploy­ees could work over a spec­i­fied pe­riod. For ex­am­ple, av­er­age weekly hours in a month must be no more than, say, 55. If work­ers work ex­ces­sively in one week they need to take The au­thor is dean of busi­ness at Chu Hai Col­lege of Higher Education.

time off in some other weeks within the month. Work­ers can­not agree to work be­yond these hours over an ex­tended pe­riod, be­cause ex­ces­sive work­ing hours are un­healthy and could even kill.

While I still be­lieve we need a statu­tory max­i­mum work­ing hours I am pre­pared to ac­cept that there can be stan­dard work­ing hours for spe­cific oc­cu­pa­tions in spe­cific in­dus­tries. These stan­dard work­ing hours will vary from oc­cu­pa­tion to oc­cu­pa­tion and can be any num­ber rang­ing up to 55 hours a week. This to me makes per­fect sense. Just think about the dif­fer­ence in phys­i­cal and men­tal in­ten­sity for work­ing as a bus driver ver­sus work­ing as a care­taker in an apart­ment block. Even though both oc­cu­pa­tions in­volve work­ing while sit­ting, a bus driver has to be at­ten­tive all the time, and is re­spon­si­ble for the safety of pas­sen­gers and other road users, while a care­taker could doze off mo­men­tar­ily with­out risk­ing any lives.

A re­cent study from the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ferred to a Fa­tigue Risk Man­age­ment Sys­tem that was de­vel­oped in the trans­port sec­tor, un­der­scor­ing the fact that job re­quire­ments do vary from sec­tor to sec­tor. Given that the op­er­a­tional en­vi­ron­ment and de­gree of com­pet­i­tive­ness also vary from sec­tor to sec­tor, man­dat­ing any­thing like eight or nine hours a day, five days a week would pro­duce great dif­fi­cul­ties in some sec­tors, lead­ing pos­si­bly to lay­offs and hurt­ing worker wel­fare.

It ap­pears that the con­trac­tual-hours frame­work pro­posed by Le­ung Chun-ying’s ad­min­is­tra­tion is a good start and should ap­ply across the board rather than just to low-in­come work­ers. Some may ar­gue that for pro­fes­sion­als and ex­ec­u­tives any spec­i­fied work­ing hours may not be ap­pro­pri­ate, as the dis­tinc­tion be­tween work and not work­ing is re­ally blurred. Yet the con­tract should still spell out the con­di­tions for the work; even if the up­per limit of 55 hours a week over each month is dif­fi­cult to en­force for some pro­fes­sion­als and ex­ec­u­tives, the pres­ence of this statu­tory limit is still ed­u­ca­tional and will con­vey the im­por­tant mes­sage that ex­ces­sively long work­ing hours need to be con­tained. There is plenty of ev­i­dence that long hours may not only be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive for the firm but also may add to health­care costs and lead to many in­tan­gi­ble so­cial costs.

Pedes­tri­ans cast long shad­ows in dap­pled re­flected sun­light as they take a yel­low ze­bra cross­ing in Cen­tral.

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